City of L.A. Report Card: Mayor Villagairosa and the Jewish community at midterm

Antonio Villaraigosa is coming up to halftime in his first term as mayor of Los Angeles. This is as good a time as any to assess the direction of his mayoralty and its implications for the Jewish community.

There is a natural comparison to be made between Villaraigosa and former L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley, but the differences are significant as well. In the world of coalition politics, Bradley was the Los Angeles Jewish community’s first love.

As the city’s first African American mayor, Bradley depended heavily on Jewish support, both in votes and in campaign money. The African American-Jewish relationship was at the heart of the Bradley coalition and marked the coming of age of both communities in the previously white, conservative politics of Los Angeles.

Villaraigosa was elected in a different time, and his relationship to the Jewish community, while significant, is substantially different from Bradley’s. Like Bradley, Villaraigosa brought a community — Latinos — to the center stage after years in the political shadows. Like Bradley, Villaraigosa drew votes from white liberals, particularly Jews. But Villaraigosa’s rise came in an era when the liberal Democratic forces had largely vanquished the old white conservative regime, and his mayoral opponents were all Democrats or progressive Republicans.

Jews no longer had a reactionary Sam Yorty to vote against. They had a Latino progressive, but also a Democratic James K. Hahn or Jewish moderate centrists like Bob Hertzberg and Steve Soboroff.

Jews did not represent the only critical mass for Villaraigosa’s victory, as they had for Bradley. The shift of African American voters from Hahn between 2001 and 2005 probably made a bigger difference in the outcome. Nonetheless Jewish and white liberal voters played an important role. In 2001, Villaraigosa was locked in a tight primary and had to break out of a competition with another Latino Democrat, Xavier Becerra, who had alienated some Jewish voters on the issue of Israel. By drawing on his long ties to the liberal Westside, Villaraigosa moved up in the pre-election polls, and when he put some distance between himself and Becerra, Latino voters poured into his camp as the Latino candidate most likely to win. That surge drove him into the 2001 runoff election against Hahn.

The Jewish community remains a potent force in Los Angeles politics and government, even though there are only two Jewish elected officials at City Hall (5th district councilman Jack Weiss and Controller Laura Chick). County supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky is a major power in town, as are Jewish Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles), Howard Berman (D-Mission Hills), Jane Harman (D-South Bay) and Adam Schiff (D-Burbank). The Jewish community has been looking to increase its ties to Latino and Asian American communities, and to navigate effectively in the highly diverse politics of this city. Villaraigosa, a dedicated practitioner of coalition politics, and well known in the Jewish community, is a natural ally in this endeavor.

Villaraigosa has added to his long history with the Los Angeles Jewish community by forging close ties with Weiss and Chick. Waxman eased the federal ban on a “subway to the sea” up Wilshire Boulevard. And until his recent tiff with Yaroslavsky over bus fares, their relationship had been good (Zev having endorsed Antonio for mayor in 2005.) Even Beverly Hills chimed in, easing its opposition to public transportation through its stretch of Wilshire Boulevard.

Villaraigosa’s Energizer Bunny constant-motion approach has made him lots of new political friends. He elevated the power of his office when he took on some of the toughest problems of the city, from environment to traffic, to housing, to gangs, to police and, most of all, the schools. Now he is entering the “big slog” period when he will have to select issues to focus on and make sure that he gets some big results.

Some of these issues are particularly acute for Jewish voters. Jews are intensely concerned about education, even with only a small number of children in the public schools. Jews can be found on all three sides of the complex power struggle over the LAUSD. Jewish school board members, Jewish teachers’ union leaders and Jewish school reformers have all been part of the mix. Villaraigosa won control of a school board majority by backing a Jewish candidate in the San Fernando Valley who beat an incumbent in May. His ability to reform the governance and operations of the school district will be closely watched.

But nothing is likely to be more perilous or potentially successful than the linked issues of traffic and growth. Bradley found this out all too well when his downtown building boom spilled over onto the Westside and into the Valley, causing growth to accelerate and traffic to snarl. He faced a major, if temporary, decline in his support among Jews not because of ethnic or racial issues, but simply on the issue of growth.

Villaraigosa has pledged to make a major dent in public transportation and traffic, and those two matters will be closely watched on the Westside especially, but also in the Valley. His conflict with Yaroslavsky over MTA bus fares may presage tougher days ahead as he seeks to build financial and political support for the subway to the sea. And even if that project moves ahead, there will be major political complications from the physical changes that will have to be undertaken. Anything to reduce traffic congestion that is low-cost and quick to implement may help reduce some of the inevitable backlash to any change in these dense streets.

Even with these daunting challenges, there is reason to be optimistic about Villaraigosa’s next two years. He has made strong appointments to run City departments, and he has enough political support to make tough choices. At the end of the day, though, it may all come down to building coalitions and avoiding traffic jams.

Raphael Sonenshein is a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton. He writes a monthly column for The Journal.